Medieval manuscripts blog

13 April 2022

Discovering Boccaccio manuscripts online

The Italian writer, poet and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) is probably most familiar in the English-speaking world for his Decameron, a collection of one hundred short stories that were adapted by Chaucer and Shakespeare and inspired works by Swift, Tennyson and Keats. He was a key literary figure in late-medieval and Renaissance Europe whose considerable output included love poetry, courtly tales, a genealogy of the gods, and the first collection of biographies devoted solely to women in Western literature.

Towards the end of his life, disillusioned with love and suffering from a variety of ailments, he was only dissuaded from burning much of his own material by the intervention of Petrarch, a close colleague and mentor. Fortunately his works survived, and the many translations and extant manuscripts are testament to their popularity. In the 15th century numerous illustrated copies were produced for the courts of Europe.

Illuminated manuscript showing Petrarch approaching Boccaccio, who is lying in bed
Petrarch appears to Boccaccio who is ill in bed, in a building decorated with the coat of arms of the French royal family, from Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century), Add MS 35321, f. 247v

Twenty seven British Library manuscripts containing works of Boccaccio are either fully or partially digitised in our online catalogues. An advanced search in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts using the field ‘Author’: ‘Boccaccio’ produces a list of all of these with a selection of images from each one. Six are also fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Here are just some of these fascinating manuscripts.

Concerning Famous Women

Most impressive of all are two grand volumes of Boccaccio’s ground-breaking collection of biographies of famous women, De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women) in a French translation by Laurent de Premierfait. Both contain magnificent illustrations of the characters and their deeds. Boccaccio’s purpose in this work is to encourage virtuous behaviour among women, but the examples he chooses from among biblical, classical, mythological and historical characters are both good and bad. All the well-known female figures are present, each one accompanied by a portrait, from Eve to Medusa, and from Sappho to Cleopatra, alongside less familiar examples such as Hypsicratea, Queen of Pontus, and Faustina Augusta, wife of Marcus Aurelius. Christine de Pizan based many of her biographies of women in the famous Cite des Dames on this work.

An illumination of Cleopatra being bitten by asps
Cleopatra is bitten by two dragon-like ‘asps’ and blood pours from her arms, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 101r

 

Hypsicratea cutting her hair, surrounded by an army
Hypsicratea cutting her hair and joining her husband King Mithridates VI in battle, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Royal MS 20 C V, f. 119r

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts also features copies of the original Latin text of Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. One of these, Harley MS 6348, is an early copy made in Italy in the 14th century, not long after Boccaccio’s death. The opening page of De claris mulieribus contains the dedication beginning with the words: ‘Pridie, mulierum egregia...’ The first sentence translates as:

‘Some time ago, illustrious lady, while away from the crude multitudes and almost free of other concerns, I wrote a little book in praise of women, more for the pleasure of my friends than as a service to humanity’ (trans. Guarino).

The opening page of a 14th-century copy of De claris mulieribus, beginning with a decorated initial letter 'P'
The opening page of Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus (Italy, last quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 6348, f. 24r

Concerning Noble Men and Women

In addition to his biographies of women, Boccaccio produced a collection of biographies of both men and women, De casibus virorum illustrium, also translated into French by Premierfait. Some of these are very large volumes, each containing over fifty biographies with numerous miniatures. For example, Royal MS 14 E V, a Bruges manuscript owned by Edward IV, is almost half a metre tall and has 513 folios – the size of a small suitcase – so you need to be strong just to lift it off the shelf! the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has images of all the pages with illustrations from this manuscript. For example, a historical event known as the Sicilian Vespers, the Easter rebellion by the Sicilians against French rule in 1282 when thousands of French civilians were murdered, is the subject of one illustration. 

Illustration of the Sicilian Vespers, with a soldier stabbing a man with a spear while he is in bed
The Sicilian Vespers, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (Bruges c. 1480): Royal MS 14 E V, f. 488r

The theme of the biographies is the changeability of fortune. Boccaccio focuses on the downfall of famous people, all of whom are subject to the will of Lady Fortune. In book 6 the two meet and speak about the fates of the unlucky nobles who are destined to fall from dizzy heights of power and wealth.

Bocaccio in his study, with his vision of Fortune as a crowned lady with many arms
Boccaccio in his study, with his vision of Fortune as a crowned lady with many arms, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Royal MS 20 C IV, f. 198r

Another manuscript of his work, Harley MS 621, has a miniature at the beginning of each of the major sections or books into which the work is divided. In this one, Boccaccio watches Fortune turn her wheel. Note the cockerel in the border!

Boccaccio watching Fortune turn her wheel
Boccaccio watching Fortune turn her wheel, with an old king seated on top, a pile of fallen persons below, and a violent battle between two armies in the background, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 621, f. 217r

The Fall of Princes

The English poet, John Lydgate, produced an abridged version of De Casibus in a Middle English translation, known as The Fall of Princes. Three copies are fully digitised on Digitised Manuscripts. One of these, which was probably made at Bury St Edmunds, contains a series of illustrations of key scenes in the margins. One gruesome example is of King Cyrus of the Persians who subdued all the nations from Syria to the Red Sea. According to the Boccaccio/Lydgate version of his life, Tomyrus, Queen of the Scythians defeated his army, severing his head from his body, and throwing it into a bowl of blood with these words, ‘Thou that hast all thy time thirsted for blood, now drink thy fill, and satiate thy self with it’.

The remains of King Cyrus floating in tub of blood
The remains of King Cyrus floating in tub of blood, The Fall of Princes (England, perhaps Bury St Edmunds, 1450-1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 135r

The Decameron

There are also Boccaccio manuscripts on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts containing a variety of his other works, including three of his most well-known work, the Decameron. This copy of the Decameron, translated into French by Laurent de Premierfait, is decorated with borders containing the royal arms of England. This is because it was part of the collection of manuscripts owned by King Edward IV of England. 

A presentation miniature of Jean, duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait
Jean, duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait, with the border containing the royal arms of England, from the beginning of Les cent Nouvelles, a French translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron (Bruges, 1473-83): Royal MS 19 E I, f. 1r

Other Boccaccio texts include Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, a quasi autobiographical novel about a love affair set in Naples. 

An open manuscript with illuminated initials in gold, on red, green or blue grounds
Illuminated initials in Boccaccio's Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (Italy, c. 1500), Harley MS 5427, ff. 19v-20r

This overview of Boccaccio manuscripts helps to demonstrate that our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, though not providing full digital coverage, remains a key source for images of our manuscript collections. We continue to maintain it and make updates and corrections to the records. We hope you enjoy exploring!


Chantry Westwell

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